What I Learned 20 Years Ago

  1. You don’t always get what you want. Certainly, I had this figured out by age 36, but my 31 year old brother’s death was the hardest lesson I had had up to that point of the reality of this. (And regardless of my own daughter’s death 8 years later, probably still the hardest lesson.) I had prayed and prayed and begged and begged and had family and friends praying, but July 28, 1998 brought us a definite No to those wishes.
  2. Even though you can never reverse the event, you must use the beauty of your brother’s life and the tragedy (to you) of his death to live your own life to the fullest. You have to make there be a reason for it all. My brother’s 9-month illness and death caused a boatload of spiritual turmoil in me. Actually, I had been struggling for years, and this just increased matters dramatically. In being determined to make his life and death matter, I made decisions to remove myself from bad spiritual and mental situations. I remember thinking as I was making these decisions and beginning to feel relief and light in my heart and spirit, that my brother had saved my soul.  (Don’t freak out Christians; I know what Jesus did.) I remember feeling a very strong sense of homing in on what is really important in life; I had a intense desire to get rid of what was weighing me down and keeping me from the true, the good, and the beautiful, whatever was robbing me of joy and really just complicating my life so unnecessarily.
  3. I also learned things that were helpful to say to the grieving and things that were not so helpful. For example, one person said to my Mom, “At least you have the other 4 kids.” That’s in the not helpful category. Perhaps I’ll share more in another post.

My brother, James Lester Davis, was born October 30, 1966, the 5th of 5 children. How delighted everyone was that here was a second boy. Mike, 11 years older, would not be alone anymore. Although that age difference didn’t exactly make a close friendship in their early years, the beautiful thing is that as adults they became the best of friends. James died in Mike’s home.

Our oldest sibling, Rita, refers to James as her first baby. Her sweet baby James. She was 15 years old at his birth. Our sister Karen certainly had adventures with her baby brother growing up and was privileged to have him live with her for a while when he was in his 20s, with more adventures which she can relate so well.

I was nearly 5 when James was born. Amazingly enough, with that age difference, we got along pretty well growing up. We shared comic books, which I wrote our names on and scratched his out when he made me mad. Ha! Good times. We played games inside and outside, rode our bikes long distances across town. He was in 8th grade when I went to college 12 hours away. I remember coming home that Thanksgiving and seeing this stranger with these long arms coming out of the house to greet me. “Hi, Kay,” James said with this changing voice I didn’t recognize.

Five years later James was in college in Arkansas, studying art. He made a lot of friends there, friends that remained a part of his life until his death 14 years later.

My brother James was about the most laid back, energetic person I’ve ever known. Yes, I said ‘laid back’ and ‘energetic’. He was excited about life. He loved art and architecture and music. He was kind. He was generous. He was interested in people. He was thoughtful. He was open. He loved truth and sought truth.

James loved his parents. He honored his Dad and adored his Mom. He said of Darice, his girlfriend at the time of his death, “She’s so much like Mom.” Yes, he wanted ‘a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad‘.

James loved me. He wanted the best for me. My little brother encouraged me in my love for music. I heard from him daily thanks to the very early days of emailing. He made me travel tapes. He sent me sheet music. He visited me in NYC several times. I was so proud to share my brother with my friends and co-workers and to see the city through his eyes.

Then that call came in October, 1997. From him. “I have cancer.” There was a tumor on his tongue. Even in that first phone call, he acknowledged his readiness to die, although he didn’t want to. His 31st birthday was October 30th. The following day he had surgery, removing about a 1/3 of his tongue. Nodes from his throat were tested, and they found that the cancer had spread to his neck. (My siblings can correct any of this. I am, and am pretty certain I will always remain, medically and biologically stupid.) He was medicated and chemoed and radiated for the next 9 months. By the beginning of June, the doctors were acknowledging that his time was short. My bosses in NYC graciously allowed me to go to Alabama to be with him, where he was staying at our brother Mike’s house. Mike’s wife, Judith, was his chief caregiver there. She was wonderful. On Tuesday morning, July 28th, around 9 o’clock, he had asked that we wait a bit for his next feeding. I sat on the couch next to him, playing some hand-held game. Then I heard a rustling sound and saw one of the worst sights of my life, never to be forgotten. Judith and Mom came into the room. Mom held James’ hand as he bled to death, saying, “You were a good boy, James.” Judith called 911 and kept her 4 and 6 year old out of the room.

And here we are. We have survived 20 years without him. Unbelievable. Wasn’t it just yesterday? James’ old Dad (49 at James’ birth) lived on after James’ death another 17 years. I guess you all know that I have a son. His name is James. You can probably figure out why. You can also read more about that here.

As I was going through the aftermath of his death and the great emptiness I felt at the loss of such a great friend, I don’t think I imagined where I would be twenty years later. I’m not sure I thought I’d be here twenty years later. Part of me thought that I was next. Every little pain was a tumor, and I’d be gone soon, too. I felt very alone. Me was all I had, and I wanted to get her right. In whatever time I had left. If James was with God, I wanted to be able to see him again. I wanted James to look down and be proud of what his sister was doing with her life. I wanted him to know that his life had mattered.

It did.

It still does.

I will remember you, will you remember me?
Don’t let your life pass you by
Weep not for the memories ~Sarah McLachlan, Dave Merenda

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.  ~Aeschylus

James Lester Davis 1966-1998

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